In the last few days of August 2006, while most Sicilians were still
enjoying what was left of the precious Summer holidays, something unique
happened --something apparently unprecedented in the annals of one of the
world's largest food service corporations. More than a hundred employees
of two franchised McDonald's restaurants went on strike. This occurred at
two restaurants in Palermo and lasted just a few days. The strike (described
in the second article at right) wasn't over wages but rather employees'
reluctance to be transferred to the chain's other restaurants in Sicily.
Funny that this should happen in Sicily, of all places. But this article isn't about fast food
employees, of which there are very few in Italy. The point is that "precarious"
(occasional) unemployment, low pay and short-term contracts have become part of the fabric of Sicilian society. Gone are the public-sector sinecures of the past, and family businesses --still the backbone of what's left of the private sector of the Italian economy-- aren't as successful as they once were.
To a great extent this is all part of a global trend. Outsourcing, short-term
contracts and the like are facts of life in most economies. It's just that
Sicily's peculiar circumstances are, well, bizarre. A single page of the
1 September issue of the Giornale di Sicilia described three cases:
the McDonald's strike, the "inheriting" of jobs at the publicly-traded
Banco di Sicilia (Sicily's largest bank) and the continuing saga of exploited,
underpaid call-center employees.
First let's consider the bank policy. (We're showing you the Italian
newspaper article to avoid accusations that this author "invented"
this story.) Strange as it may seem, a young person entering the work force
can request and actually inherit a job from a parent who works at the Banco
di Sicilia; the post office has the same policy. More precisely, he or she
gets a position, though nowadays not necessarily the exact position his father or mother is leaving. Actually, the son or daughter might be employed
while the parent is still working at the bank. Yes, institutionalised nepotism.
Corrupt? Incredible? Absolutely. But the policy's roots can be traced to
the days when bank jobs were reserved for the privileged few. Even today,
it's virtually impossible to get a bank job in Sicily without a "recommendation" (preferment). Further comment isn't necessary. I'll leave that to you.
Call centers are a popular form of outsourcing. An airline like Alitalia
need not employ reservation specialists and customer service representatives
if personnel can be contracted outside the company, and this way employee
pensions and other benefits are not an issue; they don't exist. In Italy
the typical call center employee is around 25 years old, having at least
some university education, and works part time, about 25 hours per week,
making no more than 500 euros per month. (All salary figures given here are "net," i.e. after taxes and other deductions.) In Sicily's difficult job market
this is considered good, but you certainly can't live on such a salary.
Contracts are short-term, usually for six months or a year; forget about
job security. Presently (October 2006) Alitalia is considering moving its
call center operations to Argentina, where many university graduates speak
English and Italian and, more importantly, will work for lower wages than
What about working directly for Alitalia? Becoming a flight attendant
is still the "dream job" of many Italian girls. Today most Alitalia
jobs come with short-term contracts and wages negotiated below the official
union scale, designated "stagionale" (seasonal). Being hired directly
by the company is no panacea; the starting base salary for flight attendants
is currently 900 euros per month.
Perhaps the segment of the labour force which finds itself in greatest
difficulty are the "precari," those in various
fields whose economic fate, month by month, year to year, hangs by a tenuous
thread. Despite government-sponsored incentives to employ people under 28
(the infamous call centers themselves actually pay only fifty percent of
their employees' salaries), few firms want to accept such responsibility.
Most of the sales clerks in Palermo's shops, for example, work illegally
With the Sicilian economy stagnating and fewer public-sector jobs to go around, what should --at best-- be temporary training positions have become "permanent" ones, and the career expectations of younger people don't always correspond to reality. Most upper middle-class Sicilians begin their first job at about 25, scorning the kind of humble jobs that form the core of early (part-time) employment experience in America and elsewhere.
Once they enter the workplace, they have to beware of forms of exploitation rarely addressed by labour unions or the law. It's not unusual for an employer to expect free (unpaid) work during an informal "periodo di prova" (trial period) of three months or more, which cannot be directly compared to a formal internship. In Sicily many employers (even call centers and the public sector) habitually pay employee wages with many months of delay. A few years ago I was in a Palermo bank on a day when it was crowded with hundreds of people waiting to cash checks that had been issued to temporary city employees eight months late. It had the atmosphere of feudal serfs being given alms by their medieval baronial lord, the mayor of Palermo!
A number of government-sponsored work programs have failed. Most of these pay less than 600 euros per month, and the most infamous in recent years are the "lavori socialmente utile" (socially useful jobs) which placed young people in jobs invented with no real objective in mind. A similar attempt was made by placing low-paid "guides" at historical sites. These poorly qualified employees (few speak English or any second language) are all but useless; the real (licensed) tour guides who accompany groups speak at least one foreign language and have passed a difficult examination with a focus on Sicily's ancient, medieval and modern history.
Getting established as a physician or lawyer is challenging for the graduate lacking money and the necessary connections. There's a ten-year waiting list for medical doctor positions in Palermo's Civic Hospital, one of Sicily's largest health-care facilities. Starting a small business with public funding is a popular scheme, but few such companies survive very long after the initial funding has run out --usually in two or three years. In Sicily a large number of continually unprofitable stores, restaurants and other businesses are actually facades for money laundering or other activities connected in some way with organised crime. Many schemes are little more than short-term projects conceived to obtain "development funds" from the European Union, political corruption being a good source or unearned money.
Unemployment (and under-employment) is higher in Sicily than in most other Italian or European Union regions. This must be considered in light of the statistical criteria of specific studies, which vary greatly. If the figure includes persons over 21 who out of financial necessity want to work but cannot find full-time jobs (thus eliminating most university students and many married mothers), unemployment in Sicily is approximately twenty-five percent. However, it is clear that many Sicilians, such as the call center employees earning 500 euros a month, are "under-employed" because their salaries could not permit them to support themselves in a reasonable manner.
Admittedly, there are some young Sicilians who seem to have unrealistic aspirations, like the 27 year-old woman with a newly-minted undergraduate business degree but no work experience, who told me she thought herself qualified to become a vice president of FIAT within ten years. She may be part of a small minority, but it is probably true, as several politicians (both Left and Right) have stated, that the work ethic isn't as strong as it used to be. As one journalist said, many Italians "want jobs but they don't want to work." Or maybe it's more complicated than that.
The atmosphere doesn't foster good employer-employee relations. In contrast to the societies of countries like Ireland and Denmark, Italy's is what sociologists call "low trust," and the work environment doesn't help. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review ("The Decision to Trust" by Robert F. Hurley, September 2006) makes the point that companies which create a trusting culture enjoy many advantages over those that don't.
Sexual harassment is a perennial part of the mix --so normal in Italy that
few women think to complain about a male employer who behaves
inappropriately, and women are seriously underrepresented in many professions.
Italian management is overwhelmingly gray and male.
Unfortunately, there's no sign of any of this changing in the near future. The "brain drain"
is a fact of life for Sicily's university graduates, many of whom leave Sicily (and Italy) in search of greener pastures where rampant unemployment, entrenched cronyism and ridiculous recommendations are not an indelible part of the career landscape.
About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has
written for various Italian magazines, including this one.